- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 25, 2006

Making summer travel plans on a shoestring budget? Then you probably have considered staying in cheap hotels or hostels, maybe even spending an occasional night at an airport or railway station.

Has it ever crossed your mind to stay for free on the couch of a complete unknown? That’s what more than 55,000 “couch surfers” the world over do, or intend to do.

Couch surfers are members of a Web site (www.couchsurfing.com) that is open to anyone. It was started a couple of years ago to connect eager travelers, most in their 20s, who are countries and sometimes even continents apart. Members sign up, find and connect with prospective hosts who live in a desired travel destination — be it Bangkok or Baltimore — and are willing to put up a stranger on the couch.

Erin Haithcock, 26, and her husband, Steve Goodloe, 27, have an apartment, complete with a couch, in Baltimore’s Charles Village neighborhood. Recently, after reading about the site in a travel magazine, they signed on and soon had a couch surfer staying with them: Mariana da Silva, 26, from Porto, Portugal.

“I don’t know that much about [Mariana] but I’ve looked at her couch-surfing profile, and she seems like a really cool, artsy person,” Ms. Haithcock said a few days before meeting Miss da Silva.

Turns out, her impression was correct. Two days and many a vanilla vodka and late-night discussion later, the two young women are touring the National Gallery of Art in the District. To an outside observer, the pair seem as if they have known each other for years. They talk about social issues, art and travel. They discuss love, family and careers. They also talk about Miss da Silva’s extensive globe-trotting. She has traveled so much in the past year that she has spent just a few weeks in Portugal.

“And when I’m there, I don’t like it,” she says. “Is it home? I don’t know.”

In fact, she says couch surfing, which she has done in the past year in Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Cape Verde, England, Greece, Dubai, Ireland and now the United States, has given her a cheap and fun way to search for a new home country.

“So, you’re actually country shopping?” Ms. Haithcock asks while enjoying a pistachio ice cream at a National Gallery coffee shop.

“Yes, I am. I have high hopes for Brazil,” says Miss da Silva, who can’t stop giving props to Couchsurfing.com.

“You get a sense of place and people you don’t get [staying] in a hotel. … People show you their city, their way,” Miss da Silva says.

That is what Ms. Haithcock has done.

“I’ve never walked from our apartment to the Inner Harbor before,” she says, “but Mariana and I did it the other day, and it was great.”

Miss da Silva agrees.

“Walking is my favorite way of traveling,” she says. “You experience a place with your whole body.”

Ms. Haithcock also took time to visit the District.

“Which I never do, even if it’s so close,” Ms. Haithcock says. “Having someone stay with you really gets you out of your routine — in a good way.”

Miss da Silva, who is (supposed to be) writing her thesis in psychology and attends the Universidade Braga do Minho in northern Portugal also says she doesn’t have much money to spend on lodging. She then launches into a retelling of her most recent couch-surfing experiences.

In Smiltene, Latvia, she stayed in a house without running water, where she slept on the floor. It was not a particularly touristy or comfortable experience, but Miss da Silva says she’s thankful for the family’s generosity and the unique look at life in Smiltene the stay provided.

“They shared with me the little they had. It’s very moving,” she says.

One of the most comfortable couches (although, technically, the Web site doesn’t mandate that the sleeping arrangement involve a couch) so far, however, has been Ms. Haithcock’s, she says.

All this sounds very rosy, not to mention exciting and fun, but the question is, how could anyone in this day and age feel safe inviting a complete stranger into his or her home to spend a night or five?

“Well, Mariana and I met at a coffee shop [in Baltimore] first,” Ms. Haithcock says. “I just wanted to be sure.”

Ms. Haithcock, who also has traveled extensively in such remote places as Burkina Faso, West Africa — but never through Couchsurfing.com — also felt reassured by reading Miss da Silva’s profile on the couch-surfing Web site. It included information about Miss da Silva’s interests and background as well as several references from people who had hosted her in the past. One of the site’s early members also vouched for her.

“Couch surfing has a couple of ways to promote safety,” says Dan Hoffer, one of the site’s founders. “We use verification and vouching. It’s not foolproof, but it’s something.”

Vouching means that someone in the core group of early couch surfers endorses a newer couch surfer. To become verified, couch surfers send their credit-card information to site managers with a current address and telephone number to prove that they live where they say they live. Both safety measures are voluntary. The site does not do background checks for criminal records.

“But we’ve had no reports of someone being in physical danger — ever,” Mr. Hoffer says.

Miss da Silva says she has never felt scared while traveling and rarely pays attention to a person’s verification and vouching status.

“I don’t feel fear. … I think in general, if you don’t feel like a victim, you won’t be a victim,” she says.

Not everyone is as self-assured.

Andrea Khoury, 20, a student at George Mason University, says she recently signed up with Couchsurfing.com and plans to use it when going to Greece this summer.

“But I am going with a friend,” Miss Khoury says. “I would never do it alone. I wouldn’t feel safe.”

She says her main motivation for using the Web site, which she discovered through www.facebook.com, an online social network for university students, is financial.

Her budget for her 10-day trip to Greece is about $2,000, including airfare.

“So, it would be pretty hard to swing a hotel room,” Miss Khoury says.

She’s also expecting to have more fun because she’s hoping to have an active host in Athens and on nearby islands.

The Web site doesn’t require that a host also act as a guide, but from testimonials and travel logs, it seems most people, like Ms. Haithcock, do.

Also on the Web site is a lot of statistical information showing, not surprisingly, that many couch surfers are young. The largest group (47.9 percent of surfers) is the 18-to-24 category; most are men. Most surfers are from North America (42.2 percent), with Europe a close second (39.8 percent). Close to 200 nations are represented.

The site has been around for more than two years (an eternity in some Internet contexts) and is still going strong, in fact stronger than in its first year.

“Our rate of membership growth right now is about 19 percent a month,” Mr. Hoffer says. This means that membership could be more than 100,000 by the end of the year.

He says there are a couple of reasons it works.

“Couch surfing facilitates connections between individuals worldwide, and in the process, it bridges cultures and enhances people’s lives,” he says.

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